Theo Van Gogh was four years younger than his brother, Vincent, and yet he supported him, both financially and emotionally, all of his life. Born in the Netherlands, Vincent moved around Belgium, England, and France in an effort to figure out where he belonged. He did not grow up wishing to be an artist, so when he made the late decision to start painting, he spent years just learning his craft. Theo worked as an agent in an art gallery, and he sent Vincent money for rent, paint, and the little bit of food that he ate. Vincent went for incredibly long walks, worrying his family with his gaunt, disheveled appearance. His worldview was so different from anyone else’s that when he asked Theo to send him more money each month so that he could rent a larger apartment for the prostitute and her children whom he had taken in, he could not understand why Theo refused. He sent sketches and paintings to Theo for critiques, since he knew that his brother was acquainted with all of the latest trends. Once he saw the use of light and color in the works of the Impressionists while on a visit to Theo in Paris, Vincent was inspired and worked feverishly to turn out an amazing amount of art in his short and tragic life.
Known as a post-Impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s artistic understanding is unique. Although he learned from the Impressionists, his thick brush strokes and symbolic elements move him past their more representational style. Perhaps as a result, he did not become financially successful in his lifetime, and his most famous works were created in his last few years. Heiligman demonstrates that it was his sister-in-law, Theo’s widow, who was largely responsible for introducing the world to Van Gogh’s genius.
Since these two brothers kept up a steady correspondence throughout their lives, sometimes with more than one letter each day, Heiligman was able to obtain plenty of primary source matter for this double biography. Many others have written about Vincent Van Gogh, but never springing from this relationship that was central to his life. The author follows the brothers from their childhood through their deaths— so close together— and she never shies away from the mental health issues that plagued them increasingly as adults. Their sister, as well, ended her life in a mental institution. Vincent did have some sort of medication, which he seemed to take sporadically, and today he would probably have begun taking medication for bipolar disorder in adolescence, which begs the question of his genius. Would Vincent Van Gogh—and so many other artists and creators—have given their gifts to the world if they had been “normal”? And what is “normal”? Is longer life more important? And who gets to decide?
The best books are the ones that make one think, and I’m still thinking about this one. My only wish is that the author had included more photos of Van Gogh’s artwork, and had referenced the included ones in the text. I looked up a lot of things on Google Images, only to discover a few of them later in the book. This thorough biography was written for teens, but includes details that make it unsuitable for younger readers. It’s on the short list for the Youth Media Awards in February, both in teen literature and nonfiction categories, and it is a worthy candidate, indeed.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.